Printing in a New Dimension

3D printers bring new potential to prototyping and innovating at MIT Lincoln Laboratory

MIT Lincoln Laboratory staff are printing in a new dimension, using 3D printers to transform 3D designs into tangible objects. More formally known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a process that assembles conventional manufacturing materials, such as plastics and metals, in successive layers along the Z axis (i.e., top down or bottom up). The Laboratory has invested in several 3D printers, ranging in size and capability from industrial-scale, top-of-the-line models to desktop, home-hobbyist models. Located in the Rapid Hardware Integration Facility (RHIF)—the Laboratory's dedicated rapid prototyping area—and in the Technology Office Innovation Laboratory (TOIL)—a newly opened space for prototyping and tinkering—the Laboratory's 3D printers are being utilized to complete work on sponsored programs and to explore preprogram ideas. "3D printing enables staff to pursue a variety of programs and activities," says Andy Vidan, associate technology officer, Technology Office.

A staff member showcases 3D-printed parts.A 3D printer enables staff to build customized thermoplastic parts for prototype systems.

In RHIF, 3D printing has facilitated the Laboratory's rapid prototyping efforts. "3D printing expedites the design-build-test cycle that is critical to delivering capabilities to the battlefield within short time frames," explains James Ingraham, associate leader, Rapid Prototyping Group. He continues, "3D printing accelerates the process of transforming concepts into functional parts by providing engineers with opportunities to quickly make design adjustments." 3D-printed components within operational prototypes include deployment mechanisms for airborne antennas; cyclonic separators; brackets; wings; and fixtures to assist in building antennas and lightweight, compact aircraft parts. Besides facilitating design iteration for rapid fabrication, 3D printing also enables staff to create quick-concept models for fit checks and sponsor requests. Ingraham says 3D printing is ideal for designs that need quick modifications or for designs with "complex external and internal geometries" that could not be manufactured by conventional means.

David Scott, manager, TOIL, agrees: "3D printing is ideal for building complex designs that could not be brought to life in a machine shop." In TOIL, staff are using 3D printing to build architectural models of cities, to study stress-strain curves on different materials, to prototype telescopes and radio-frequency devices, and to experiment with a variety of flexible printing materials. Scott is also building a 3D printer through what he calls a "spin-off" of the LulzBot, a 3D printer that is itself manufactured with 3D-printed parts. Once the printer is assembled, Scott hopes to hand it off to TOIL tinkerers for fine-tuning (e.g., enhancing the printer’s resolution, experimenting with print heads, and testing different print materials).

3D-printed parts. A cooling fan bracket for a desert-based system is one of the many 3D-printed parts created at the Laboratory.

According to Scott, "3D printing is more attractive than anything else" in TOIL, which opened its doors less than six months ago. He continues, "Not everyone is a designer or builder. Many who come to TOIL don't know how to use computer-aided design software like SolidWorks and Google SketchUp, and have never used a 3D printer before, but they want to learn." Scott, who offers hands-on training for staff, says computer scientists, electrical and mechanical engineers, and biological researchers alike have come to TOIL looking to get involved and have been "impressed by the designs they are capable of creating." Staff are encouraged to innovate, experiment, and tinker to see what they can learn and apply to future work. "Eventually something very important will come out of this lab," says Scott.  

To encourage the exploration of 3D printing, the Technology Office is supporting "Print Lab," a grant-based initiative to promote the Laboratory's collective understanding of the current, and extensive, capabilities and limitations of 3D printing. For instance, although 3D printing is ideal for design alteration and customization, it cannot support mass production once a design is perfected. With today's 3D-printing speeds, one part can take a few hours or several days to make depending on its dimensions. Similarly, 3D printing cannot compete with machining when it comes to tolerance (i.e., measurement accuracy). However, 3D printing does reduce machine-operator needs. "You don't have to 'babysit' the 3D printer. You can start a print job before you leave for the day and come in the next morning to a finished product," explains Scott. While 3D printers support on-demand printing and produce minimal waste, they cannot effectively print two or more different materials at the same time. The Laboratory's Aerospace Division is currently experimenting with methods to mix conductive and nonconductive materials within the same machine, a capability that would greatly impact the way electronics are manufactured. The Technology Office is also planning to add the exploration of new 3D printing materials to its portfolio of funded projects in novel and engineered materials.

According to Scott, "3D printing is only in its infant stages. It has greatly evolved since the 1980s, but it is only starting to take off. It is a fantastic technology that will run in so many different directions, impacting all fabrication techniques."

Posted January 2014

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